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Classroom fad or fix? Are attendance prizes a bad bet?

Classroom fad or fix? Are attendance prizes a bad bet?

What is it? 

The use of rewards given to pupils who have not missed many days of school (often 98-100% attendance). The nature of these gifts varies from school to school; for some it is a certificate, while many other schools opt for pricier prizes such as iPads, bicycles and trips. 

Earlier this month, writer and mother Rachel Wright's blog post about why she wouldn't be letting her son accept his 100% attendance prize went viral, receiving more than 20,000 likes and sparking a huge response online.

What do supporters say? 

That students will be better motivated to make sure they attend school every day if they have the possibility of a reward at the end of the year. Schools that use this system have claimed that prizes are "more effective than punishment in motivating pupils" and have highlighted the positive impact they have on attendance. Research has found that, perhaps predictably, students are in favour of this type of scheme, with a 2006 study finding that 'gifts' were the most popular reward system among young people.

It's an idea that's been backed by Ofsted too. A 2008 report from the inspectorate on the best way to engage disaffected young people in secondary school found that: "Rewards, such as opportunities to go on trips or to gain awards, were a powerful incentive for students who struggled with school", helping them to behaviour, attainment and attendance.

What do critics say?

That such systems are unfairly rewarding children who are lucky enough to not get ill, and could actually be damaging the intrinsic motivation that students should develop towards learning.

Psychologist Sandi Mann is running a school attendance scheme at the University of Central Lancashire entitled Your Future Your Life, and explains that she and her colleagues opted not to use rewards because they "want [students] to want to attend school because of the perceived benefits of what happens there, not in order to get a certificate, badge or pizza".

She also cites the long-held belief – as explored by researcher Edward Deci – that extrinsic reward systems only tend to work while they are in place, with the previous behaviour patterns often returning when such schemes are removed. Following this argument, schools may be able to boost their attendance with prizes, but could be neglecting the development of habits that will take students successfully through their education.

A research study conducted by Emma Dunmore, head of psychology at Harrogate Grammar School, came to a similar conclusion – with the added concern that pupils may be losing a sense of autonomy in the process. She said: "Receiving the reward may reduce the individual's sense that they were doing the task because they chose to. Instead, they felt that they were doing it for a reward and so were being controlled by someone else."

What now?

When Rachel Wright posted her blog this month, many commenters came out in defence of her position, accusing schools of being 'ableist' against young people whose conditions mean they have no choice but to miss school. Others, meanwhile, responded that there are no negative repercussions for those who don't receive the awards, and that the achievement is deserving of praise. But with attendance such a critical issue in schools, it seems that this debate won't be going anywhere soon.

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